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Penn State Football: Which Offense Will Emerge in 2019?

by on September 19, 2019 7:30 PM

A bye week for Penn State and the fourth week of the semester at University Park are both typically good times for a quiz.

So, here goes:

Which Penn State offense will emerge in 2019? The one that:

a.) Pounded Idaho and Buffalo (second half) for 117 points and 948 yards in six quarters.

b.) Struggled against Pitt and Buffalo (first half), scoring 24 points and gaining 471 yards in six quarters.

c.) Shows up next Friday in College Park at Maryland, a seemingly panacea of a foe that the Nittany Lions have beaten by a combined 142 to 20 over the past three years (2016-18).

d.) Has averaged just 23.4 points in its last 10 games against Power 5 teams (Ohio State, Michigan State, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin, Rutgers, Maryland, Kentucky in 2018, and Pitt in 2019), with offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne calling the shots — while playing last year with a veteran quarterback and talented feature back who are now both in the NFL.

e.) None of the above. 

BONUS: Speaking of “d,” how points did the Nittany Lions average in 2015, when then-offensive coordinator John Donovan was fired the day after the season ended? (Answer: 23.2.)

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So, this being an open book test, I figured Penn State head coach James Franklin would help provide an answer. That’s why on Wednesday night, I asked him the following:

“Offensively, what have you learned by self-scouting this week?”

To translate: A good (or bad) portion of regular-season off-weeks are spent self-scouting. That is, looking at yourself with a critical eye and being about honest about what you are doing that is both good (or bad).

Here was Franklin’s reply, after noting most of his staff’s off-week self-scouting will occur this Saturday, Sunday and Monday:

“Obviously, like always there are some tendencies you have — offensively, defensively, special teams,” Franklin answered. “Tendencies aren’t always a bad thing; it means that you are good at some things. But there are also some things where you fall in some areas where you want to tweak some things and disguise, whether it’s running a play out of a certain formation, whether it’s defensively and you’re tipping some things sometimes, like to the 3 technique or the shade or whatever it may be. You look at those things.

“And then it’s also having conversations with people who have broken you down and opponents as well.”

When it comes to identifying Penn State’s early tendencies of 2019, it’s unlikely Franklin’s conversations will be with any fans, many of whom took to the Twittersphere and the message boards the past week to complain about the Nittany Lions’ offense.

One knowledgeable Penn State follower who used to play college football sent me some Tweets from the Twitter account @truthhurts_135, which postulates the Penn State offense has some not-so-good tendencies. Tweeting @coachjfranklin and @RickyRahne, that account suggested:

“Your formations are tipping run/pass EVERY PLAY. Please fix before MD. Examples: 3wr str8ng/1wr weak: Pass, Pass, Pass, Pass. 3 wr strong/nothing week: Dive, Dive, Dive”

Whether it’s the truth is one thing. Either way, Franklin & Co. certainly will know about when they study the analytics of the first three games. They’ll get some help. The Lasch team is big subscribers to Pro Football Focus, the website and stats service best known for its NFL breakdowns, although it does a lot of college work too.

(No matter what, don’t look for a major overhaul of the Penn State offense. Franklin and Rahne spent the offseason installing and teaching the core playbook. Most changes at this point will be somewhat of a window-dressing exercise: switching formations, adding motion or mis-direction. The basic play package will stay the same.)

•  •  •  

Franklin has used SportsSource Analytics, at least in the past. SSA is an Atlanta-based firm built by a Vanderbilt grad. SSA was a key factor when Franklin hired the O-coordinator who was sandwiched between Donovan (and his 23.2 points) and Rahne (and his 23.4 points). Guy by the name of Joe Moorhead.

In his two seasons as the offensive coordinator at Penn State, Moorhead had such transformational players as Saquon Barkley, Trace McSorley, Mike Gesicki, Chris Godwin and DaeSean Hamilton at his disposable. Moorhead had a clear — and cock-sure — view of what his offense should look like, perhaps in a way that Rahne is still developing.

Over the 22 victories and five losses during Moorhead’s tenure as quarterback coach and offensive coordinator at Penn State, the Nittany Lions averaged 39.3 points.

Seriously, though, Donovan certainly didn’t have the horses — or free rein to run his own scheme — that JoeMo did. That’s also true of Rahne today. So comparing them may not be totally fair. But those two seasons — the middle third of Franklin’s tenure ths far at Penn State — created a high standard by which Franklin’s future offenses at PSU will be forever compared.

Franklin, with SSA’s help, used big data and a national search to hire Moorhead. He walked the down the hall to hire Rahne.

“For me, it was the data,” Franklin said after hiring Moorhead back in December 2015. “As you mentioned I have a list (of potential coaches) at each position, but with the coordinator positions you want to study data…

“At the end of the day, you take all of those guys on the list and you run all of that data. You look at third-down percentage, scoring offense, red zone and every other piece of information you can get and you look at who is consistently at the top of each of those categories. Joe kept jumping out in almost every single category and I was very impressed.”

So were the folks at SSA. On Monday, Dec. 14, 2015 – with Moorhead firmly committed to Penn State and the hiring process complete -- @SportSourceA Tweeted out these Moorhead stats that just didn’t come in over the transom:

Compared to prior 5 yrs, @BallCoachJoeMo increased avg scoring O at Fordham by 61%, yds per play by 20%, rush yds by 14%, & pass yds by 25%.

5 years before Moorhead, Fordham scored 30+ pts 23% of games & 40+ pts 4%. Under Moorhead, scored 30+ pts 71% of games & 40+ pts 49 of games #PennSt

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Coming close to what Moorhead did in 2016-17 should not be an expectation for the Nittany Lions’ offense in 2019. That can come in 2020, the third year after JoeMo’s departure.

Here’s why: Entering the Nittany Lions’ game last week against Pitt, the 11 Penn State starters on offense had a combined 107 starts in college. Take away veteran O-lineman Steven Gonzalez (31 starts entering the game) and Will Fries (20), and the number literally drops in half. The math then equals 56 starts for nine players, an average of a half-season as a starter.

That’s young.

Speaking of tendencies, youth tends to be wildly inconsistent — both on and off the field. And when taking quizzes.



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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